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Where You Gonna Go?

It was a gorgeous night. A full moon had risen over the ridge to the East. The Western sky was a deep blue against the deeper blue-black of the distant ocean. To my right, the bright moon threw the silhouette of the mountains into sharp relief against the sky. The tail of the airplane cast a shadow on the wing.

I was following Victor 25 from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles on a return trip from the LA area to San Jose in our club's A36 Bonanza. I had limited hours in that airplane, so the insurance company wanted me to accumulate some solo time before they'd cover me with passengers aboard. Since I needed some solo hours anyway, why not satisfy the solo cross-country requirements for the Commercial certificate?

It had been a great flight, with a drop-the-gear slam-dunk VFR descent into El Monte to avoid traffic inbound for Burbank, an excellent and enormous $600 enchilada at Annia's Kitchen, and a stunning sunset over Santa Barbara. I'd even experienced the LA basin's notorious smog. (An old Henny Youngman line came to mind: "I just got back from LA. I flew in, felt the sights, and flew home!") Now I was sitting quietly, admiring the twinkling lights along the distant coast and feeling utterly content while George (the autopilot) flew the airplane. Everything was perfect.

Then a thought occurred to me: "Where you gonna go if the engine quits?"

I did not have a good answer to that question. I was over rough, remote, inhospitable terrain, beyond gliding distance from any airport, even at 10,500 feet. Despite the bright moonlight, the ground below was a black, featureless expanse of wilderness. My life now depended entirely on the health of my engine. Suddenly, the engine instruments held my undivided attention. Fortunately, they showed nothing alarming.

The remainder of the flight was uneventful, but the memory of that unsettling thought stuck with me. I realized that despite my relative inexperience in the airplane, I had already become comfortable enough to be complacent. I did some soul-searching. I reviewed my planning to see how I could have made the flight safer. I studied the sectional chart. I did gliding-range calculations.

Modern airplane engines are remarkably reliable. The chances of our plant packing it in are small enough that we can fly for years without giving it a second thought. Still, I personally know a pilot who had to dead-stick a Bonanza to a landing at an Arizona airport. Years ago, our club's own Bonanza blew a jug on departure from Catalina Island, forcing the pilot to make a 180-degree turn-back to land on the runway. As rare as these incidents are, they do happen.

We all know it's important to practice engine-out drills every so often. We need to know our minimum altitude for safely making a turn back to the airport. We're taught to keep an emergency landing spot in mind at all times. Often overlooked, though, is the need to plan our flights so we have a chance of finding that landing spot underneath us should the need arise. It might not be possible to have an emergency landing plan in our back pocket 100 percent of the time, but we can certainly improve the odds by spending just a few extra minutes in our flight planning, and maybe a few extra gallons of gas, to choose the safest route.

I know I can always improve my flight planning. I know that flying entails some unavoidable risks. I also know that I can take positive actions to minimize those risks. These days, when I'm flying between San Jose and LA, especially at night, I make the mundane, boring, conservative choice.

I follow I-5.

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